Investigation continues in apartment building fire; damage estimated at $1 million

2014-06-02T06:42:00Z 2014-06-06T14:43:07Z Investigation continues in apartment building fire; damage estimated at $1 millionBy CLAIR JOHNSON cjohnson@billingsgazette.com The Billings Gazette

A fire in a three-story brick apartment building at 23 Yellowstone Ave., early Monday sent flames shooting from the attic and smoke billowing from the roof, causing an estimated $1 million in damage.

Billings police officers in the neighborhood reported the fire then went inside the building to alert residents. All of the tenants got out or were not home, officials said. No one was injured.

Deputy Fire Marshal Jeff McCullough said Monday afternoon the cause is under investigation. The fire was reported at 5:36 a.m.

McCullough estimated property and content loss at $1 million. The property was insured but it was unknown if the contents were insured as well, he said. Nine of the 11 apartments had tenants, he said. Some residents may have had rental insurance, he said.

Billings Police Officer James Ward saw smoke coming from the building and reported the fire. Ward and two other officers were investigating another incident in the area.

Ward, along with officers Jeremy Dennler and Gerold McComb, ran inside and knocked on doors. In apartments where there was no response, they kicked in the doors.

“It was smoky inside. It was very fortunate we were in the area,” Ward said.

While McCullough said some tenants may have heard smoke detectors, he credited the police officers for their quick response.

“I believe that really helped get people out before the smoke built up. They deserve an ‘atta boy.’ That could have been really ugly. Everybody is out and safe. I’m real glad about that,” McCullough said.

An investigation into the fire is continuing. McCullough said he wants to talk to all of the tenants and that the police department is helping to track down people.

“At this time, we’ve ruled out nothing,” he said.

A battalion chief reported that the fire seemed to start in the attic area, McCullough said. “We’re still following up on some other leads,” he added.

Fire crews left the scene at about 1:30 p.m. after mopping up. There was extensive water damage throughout the building along with fire and smoke damage.

McCullough said some of the apartments didn’t look too bad, while some are a complete loss.

Joel Johnston, a property manager with Tamarack Property Management, which manages the building, said there are 11 units at 23 Yellowstone Ave.

“We’re trying to make sure everybody is OK and to make sure everybody is accounted for,” Johnston said at the scene. Everyone got out as “far as we can tell,” he said.

Billings Fire Chief Paul Dextras said at the scene that firefighters did an initial search of the building and made a secondary search to ensure no one was inside.

Crews made an “aggressive interior attack,” but fire spread to the attic and firefighters were forced out when conditions became unsafe, he said.

Firefighters then attacked from the outside, using large-flow nozzles and a large amount of water, the chief said. Water ran down the sides of the building.

By about 7:40 a.m. the flames appeared to be extinguished, and firefighters concentrated on hot spots in the attic. Flames flared up again on the east side of the roof shortly after 8 a.m.

One of the tenants, Eli Perea, watched the activity from across the street. Perea, a baker at Stella’s Kitchen and Bakery, had already left his apartment for his 4 a.m. job. “Everything was fine,” he said, when he went to work. Perea got a call about the fire.

Sirens and smoke woke up Stacye Zamora and Pete Goolsby, who live in the next-door apartment building to the east.

Goolsby said about 20 minutes later he could see flames coming from the attic.

Firefighting efforts flooded their basement apartment with about three inches of water and damaged clothes and furniture, Zamora said.

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